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August 19th, 2017
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Why We Spend:
Society's Role Versus Our Role

By Mikelann Valterra, MA

Do you buy things you want, whether or not you can afford them at the moment? Do you have trouble saving money? Do you buy things to cheer yourself up or reward yourself? If you say no to yourself, or put off buying something you really want, do you feel deprived, angry or upset?

Tough questions to answer? For many people, they are. As you may have guessed, these questions are to help indicate whether or not you have a spending problem. And the answers may not be in black and white. Some people engage in occasional problematic overspending. Others struggle with true compulsive overspending. But spending issues loom large in our country, and the repercussions of overspending are seen in the ever-growing credit card debt that so many people are mired in.

In looking at the reasons that people overspend, it is important to look at both society's role, as well as our own. People overspend for a variety of reasons, but it can be helpful to break down these reasons into society's influence, and our own personal history. Ultimately, though, we are responsible for our lives and our decisions. But having a better understanding of what is influencing us, both from without and within, can guide us in making better decisions.

It is almost impossible to get away from advertising in this country. Everywhere you look, you are encouraged to buy, buy, buy! There is always something new, something improved, and something the neighbors don't have (yet). It wasn't always like this. It used to be that advertising was simply a way of telling people that a certain product was available. "Barton's Toothpaste, 10 cents a tube". That was it. Then at the turn of the century, mass production started, making many goods readily available. That was when the insidious advertising machine started.

This is easiest to see in the way Christmas developed. In the book Unplug the Christmas Machine (by Robinson and Coppock Staeheli), the Christmas Advertising Machine is discussed. In the late 1800's, the children in a family might be able to expect one small gift, but that was it. There was little advertising. Then around 1900-1910, you see increased advertising targeted at adults, telling them they should buy. By 1918/1919, ads were appearing a full month before Christmas and were more aggressive, playing on people's emotions. Look at this ad which appeared in the New York Times, 12/15/1919: "Don't give your family and friends frivolous gifts that are sure to disappoint, buy them worthy gifts that will let them know how much you care." Look at the pressure to buy!

Then there were fears that the boom times of WWI were to be followed by a stagnant economy. So with the dwindling of war contracts, advertising went into high gear. And guess what was officially born -- "The science of persuasion". Christmas giving was targeted to keep the economy on track. And it worked. By 1923 the amount of money consumers spent on surplus consumption equaled the amount of money that came into the nations coffers during the last years of WWI. And you know the rest of the story. Advertising boomed again in the 1950's, proclaiming that the good life was within your reach, and you too could be like the Jones.

Society does have a large impact on our buying decisions, telling us what to buy, how much and from whom. It is difficult to get away from Madison Avenue's influence on our spending. But it is not the whole picture. Why do some people succumb to advertising pressures, while others do not?

Personal factors also figure strongly into our buying behavior. Most chronic overspending is in fact triggered from some childhood issue. This is usually for one of two reasons. First, some people grew up in houses where they were never told no. Many parents struggle with this, because we want to give our children the best we can. The problem is that then children do not learn delayed gratification, making it very difficult for them as adults to resist impulse buying. Also, in this type of scenario, it is not uncommon for a child to equate love with money. There are many parents who wish they could spend more time with their children, and then buy them things to compensate for this. One woman I know told me the only time she really got to spend with her mother as a child was if they went shopping together. You can bet that she struggles with shopping as an adult. Other people felt they were paid off as kids, given money instead of parental attention.

The other, more common cause of spending is rooted in childhood deprivation. Many people grew up with not enough money (or time, love, attention...). I've heard many stories of having to shop for the best bargains as a kid, of hand-me-down clothes and small cramped houses. These children often grow up and strive to heal all these old deprivations by spending money. One woman said, "I'd rather die than go into a used clothing store. It puts me back right were I came from, and I don't want to go back there". The dilemma is that it is difficult, in fact impossible, to heal old deprivations by spending money, because at heart these are emotional issues. And you can't heal emotion issues with physical means. It just doesn't work.

So what can be done? There is a lot of psychological work you can engage in, and a whole host of practical tips to keep the spending at bay. To start off, I would examine your own money history, and the money issues of your family of origin. Often, this examination yields profound insights. "So that is why I do that!" Olivia Mellan, author of Overcoming Overspending, offers these great questions: What is your earliest memory of money? Who spent it, and on what; and how did the people in your family react to this behavior? What were your family's money fears, messages, philosophy and habits? What do you remember of any family fights about money and money tensions? Was there anything special you really wanted and got (or didn't get), and how did you react to this? What other emotional memories about money and spending do you remember from growing up? What you are looking for in these questions and answers are triggers. If you can begin to identify what leads you to spend inappropriately, you may be able to defuse the next trigger when you see it. Basic psychology tells us that you can't possibly work on what you don't know exists! So it is important to bring these issues to consciousness.

What about practical means to combat overspending? For starters, while you are working on these issues, avoid trouble spots, such as the mall and large one stop shopping centers. And if you do go, consider bringing a trusted friend who you can share your struggle with. And above all else, never never never go shopping without a list. Without a list to guide you, it is nearly impossible to avoid impulse spending. Also, if shopping is a "hobby", then begin to put together a list of alternate activities you can engage in when the urge strikes. Lastly, consider outside help. Some find Debtor's Anonymous extremely helpful. Others use financial counseling. And still others form their own support groups with friends that struggle with this common issue.

It's important to know that you are not alone. Many people struggle with spending, and where to draw the line. But the most important thing of all is to become aware that this is an issue you want to work on and improve. Declaring there is a problem is often the biggest step of all.

Copyright © 2003 Mikelann Valterra, Financial Clarity, Seattle, WA. USA Visit http://www.mikelannvalterra.com - "Improving your relationship to money"

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